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HBO banks on Gatti’s best

Jul 20, 2004 3:40 AM

It was the night he beat Wilson Rodriguez in what is now called The Theater of Madison Square Garden and I happened to be trailing Arturo Gatti as he made his way through a labyrinth of hallways and doors to where the post-fight conference was being held, a long New York avenue block away.

Gatti had taken a ferocious beating, was out on his feet and if the referee had stopped the slaughter any number of times, not even his wildest fan could have complained. But the referee was Wayne Kelly and he had worked some of Gatti’s early fights and he knew about the champion’s incredible recuperative powers.

So he let it go on and, in what veteran New York fight manager Johnny Bos says flatly was the greatest comeback of all time, Gatti knocked out the tough Rodriguez.

Now, his battered eyes nearly closed, he scared his corner men as he walked straight into a closed steel door. The entourage gasped. But before their blood pressure went through the door, Gatti stepped back and yelled, "Yo, Adrian, I’m home."

Gatti, in his wisdom and jubilation, knew he had become boxing’s real Rocky Balboa. His fights with guys like Gabe Ruelas, Ivan Robinson, and of course the amazing trilogy with Micky Ward, could not have been choreographed in Hollywood. Screenwriters wouldn’t dare use such outrageous, unbelievable scripting.

Gatti has become a cult hero. He can box and he can punch, but he is by no stretch of the imagination a great fighter. HBO doesn’t care. It’ll pay more for Gatti than it would for, say, Floyd Mayweather Jr. simply because more people want to see the essence of combat from the comfort of their TV screens.

And bless him, he deserves it. I will not carp about him ducking Mayweather or Kostya Tszyu to feast on journeyman like Ward. He has paid in blood and entertainment value for that privilege.

Even though his terrific trainer, Buddy McGirt, has reminded Gatti how to use his jab and foot movement, the only sure bet on his fight July 17 against Leonard Dorin is that it will be a war. Dorin, a Romanian-born undefeated former lightweight champion from Montreal, Gatti’s old home town, will not allow it to be anything else.

Dorin is not as agile as Gatti and he doesn’t have Thunder’s power. But he is an irresistible force in the ring, a nonstop aggressor who will make Gatti do things that McGirt will not like. Dorin will give Gatti no rest. He just keeps throwing, so it will be a fun night on HBO. Any odds on Gatti at more than 9-5 will be very tempting.

Dorin (a +180 underdog at The Stardust) can fight and Gatti, we all know, can cut.

He’ll have one of the best cutmen in his corner, Joe Souza of San Antonio. Souza will also be working the corner that night of one of his hometown heroes, Jesse James Leija, another temptation if we could find odds on him.

The wily veteran’s penchant to bleed is one of the few things that could be seriously against him. I’m sure Main Events hopes Leija’s appearance as a name "opponent" will make the New Jersey promoters’ bright prospect, 21-year-old junior welterweight Francisco (Panchito) Bojado, look like a contender.

Bojado’s hand speed and combinations already make him look like a contender. He’s good, but I’m not convinced that he is strong enough for a man like Leija, who at the age of 37 is not that long removed from giving Tszyu a tough fight. He’s been in with Oscar de la Hoya (well, not for very long, as he looked like a midget next to the Golden Boy), Sugar Shane Mosley and Azumah Nelson. In fact, he took the great Professor to school in four fights with Nelson (the Hall of Famer), winning two and getting robbed in a draw.

He’s been there and beaten that. Remember, he was supposed to be the name "opponent" for another promising junior welter, Hector Camacho Jr., and was breaking down the son of Macho when the kid panicked at the sight of his own blood (it was called a no-contest). Leija sounds very confident of beating the young Bojado. It won’t be easy, especially if Souza has a bad night.

No matter the odds, I always have a rooting interest in Leija. He is a gentleman and a pillar of San Antonio society. Plus, he has a lot of Arturo Gatti’s good qualities. It should be a good night for boxing fans, and perhaps a profitable one for the underdog backers.